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REPOTTING LARGE CYCADS

THE IMPORTANCE OF CYCAD ROOTS

 

by Phil Bergman


Description of Article
This article shows how easy it is to repot a larger cycad of any type.  And, it stresses the importance of cycad root health, how lack of it causes problems and how to check a cycad for roots.

 

Introduction

This article shows how to repot a cycad and how to check the roots.  Root size and health is of the utmost importance.  Nurseries seem to ignore the roots.  It's just about caudex size and leaves.  But, without healthy roots, a cycad will not thrive and grow.  Everytime you repot a cycad, you should check the roots.

   
                               assorted cycads                                          Assorted cycads
   
REPOTTING LARGE CYCADS
TRANSPLANTING  - HOW TO DO IT? 
THE IMPORTANCE OF CAUDEX SIZE

MORE IMPORTANT ISSUE OF CYCAD ROOTS

There are three sections below.  The first two show the transplanting of two Encephalartos from 15g pots into 24 inch boxes.  You can view how it's done.  The third section discussed under-developed roots, the importance of cycad roots and cycads with problems.  But, in this article, I am mostly trying to emphasize the importance of a cycad's roots. 

REPOTTING CYCADS INTO A LARGER CONTAINER

Both of the plants being repotted and shown here below have very well developed root systems. They were in their containers for about ten years.  The root ball slides out of the 15g easily and they are easy to work with.  Photos below show swirling of the roots at the bottom of the pot.  It's not very difficult to repot such a cycad when it has good roots.  If it doesn't have extensive roots, the root ball falls apart when removing the plant.  This tears off some of the roots.  With such a plant, you have to "suspend it in air" into the pot and carefully add soil around the roots you have.  When there's a great root ball, you merely place it into the pot and add your soil.  I'm only demonstrating repotting with plants with good root sections today.  Photos below show what we do hundreds of times every year on large (or small) cycads.  If we repot a cycad that has not developed great roots as of yet, we use a lot of care in how we do it.

THE CYCAD A NURSERY IS SELLING YOU

A nursery can sell cycads either as seed grown or as a rooted offset.  When the nursery obtains new offsets, they are put into pumice or cycad soil.  It literally takes five to ten years to develop what I'd consider a good root system.  The first year after potting them up as a new offset (sucker) they'll have about six inches of roots.  It's not a strong plant at this point.  It takes five years for roots to get to the bottom of the pot.  After that the roots expand, branch and swirl at the bottom.  If possible, this is the type of cycad you want to buy - one with good roots.  Deceiving the customer, cycad caudexes can throw leaves even without roots.  By just looking at the plant, you'd naive know the difference.  You see the caudex - you see the leaves.  All is good, right?  Well, not really.  It might not be a good purchase compared to a similar sized plant with excellent roots.  And, a nursery may not tell you this.  When we get new offsets that have minimal roots and are "rooting out", we tell customers this.  And, we charge less for these plants.  But, some nurseries want you to think that a "rooting caudex" is just the same as an established plant and has the same value.  This is not true!!!

THE IMPORTANCE OF CYCAD ROOTS

As I mentioned above, development of a full set of roots on a cycad offset can take easily five to ten years.  A nursery wants to sell their plants.  So, you'll see "Encephalartos, six inches, price" advertised to their customer.  Customers think "it's all about cycad caudex size only".  This is drummed into them.  Well, it's not all about the caudex size.  A four inch plant with excellent roots will outgrow an eight inch plant with few roots.  Root development and the state of the roots is critical.  And, you'd expect to pay more for such a plant as the nursery took five to ten years to develop it for you.

Cycads typically die from the bottom up.  I.e., they die from the roots up.  The last thing to show you there's trouble is the leaf crown.  Younger and fragile roots (or non-existent roots) are more likely to fail.  If you transplant an offset that has minimal roots, it may die on you.  And, if you only consider caudex size and the presence of leaves, you can be severely fooled.  A cuadex has an inherent amount of stored energy.  A new offset may spend that energy producing new leaves.  Now, the energy of that offset is nearly depleted and the caudex may fail and die.  It's far more preferable for the offset to develop roots first - then throw leaves later.  On many Encephalartos, development of leaves before roots is a death sentence to the plant.  Cycad roots sustain the plant.  Leaves provide a means of chlorophyll through photosynthesis to develop energy to form roots.   But, the long term survival of the plant is totally dependent on the roots.  And, so is the appearance of future leaves and overall health of the plant.  Probably the worst purchase you can make is a cycad with leaves and no roots.  That is, unless you got a great discount and you're sure you can root it out.  But, in any case, it is not "garden ready".

IS IT JUST THE CAUDEX SIZE OF A CYCAD THAT'S IMPORTANT?

About six months ago a potential customer contacted me. He wanted a big Encephalartos transvenosus.  I had one about 8 to 10 inches in size with a full complement of roots.  It was gorgeous with about 20 leaves and roots coming out the bottom of the pot.  I told this customer about this plant and its price.  He told me that ".....(another nursery) would sell one this size for 30% less".  I tried to explain the merits of the plant we had and he said "it's all about the ball".   That was the last I ever heard from him.  My guess is that he was a novice and to him, it was "all about the ball".  But, an experienced grower knows this is not true and will seek out plants that have good roots.  With no roots you take a risk of death and growth is very slow. 

When you buy a big cycad, ask questions.  "How long has it been in this container?"  Or, "When was it removed from the mother plant?"  Or, "Have you inspected the root system?"  Feel the caudex.  Does it wobble or move?  Can you see roots.  Explore with your finger looking for roots.  Are roots coming out the bottom of the pot?  Tilt the container, look for roots.  All these things help.  Remember, "It's NOT all about the ball".
KEY POINTS OF ARTICLE:

When a cycad has excelent roots, repotting it is easier and usually without problems.

Cycads with little or weak roots can experience root tear when being repotted

Potting soil falls away from the roots when the root system of a cycad is not well developed. 

When you purchase a plant, try to select a plant that has good roots

Roots can be evaluated by feeling the firmness of the caudex, inspecting below the surface for roots or observing roots coming out the bottom of the container

Caudex size is less important than the roots in terms of future growth and health of the plant

An average offset takes one to two years to show some roots.  Adequate rooting takes five years in a pot.  Full rooting takes five to ten years.

A cycad offset that throws leaves before making roots often dies.  This should set off an "alarm"

Cycads die from "the bottom up" with root problems being the number one cause of death to previously healthy plants

You cannot easily see root problems through casual observation above the ground.

The right plant to purchase should have good roots unless you are an experienced grower

It's not "the size of the ball".  Other things are probably more important (see text)

An unexplained collapse of leaves is usually due to root problems and is often fatal

Trunk softness or mushiness is a very bad sign.  Prior to this there was probably root problems that were not noticed.

Find a nursery that is honest when selling their cycads and that will show you roots on request.

Nurseries tend not to devulge information on when a caudex was harvested or put into a container to root out.  Such nurseries tend to be vague, saying "last year" or "a while back"

Rotten roots are soft, dark in color and slimmy or can contain empty cavities

When replanting a cycad, always measure the height of the rootball so you no how much soil to add to the new container.

Cycads with healthy and full roots usually do not miss a beat when being repotted and no leaf trimming is needed.

Macrozamia roots out bottom
roots coming out the bottom of a pot

 

REPOTTING A 10-12 INCH CAUDEX
ENCEPHALARTOS NATELENSIS
FROM A 15G INTO A 24 INCH BOX

1.  You can see the healthy plant in the 15g pot
2.  Remove it from its container.  Look at the roots for problems.  Plants with great roots slide out easily.
3.  Measure the height of the root ball.
4.  Add soil to the bottom of the new container so, with the root ball height, you have the right height of the soil.  Leaves room for watering.
5.  Carefully place and hold erect the root ball.  Make sure it's not "leaning".
6.  Add the new cycad soil.  Compress it and then top it off.
7.  Compact all the soil and water.
8.  Admire your finish product.
Repotting a Cycad Repotting a Cycad
Repotting a Cycad Repotting a Cycad Repotting a Cycad
Repotting a Cycad Repotting a Cycad Repotting a Cycad
Repotting a Cycad Repotting a Cycad Repotting a Cycad
     
REPOTTING AN 8 TO 10 INCH
ENCEPHALARTOS WHIELOCKII
IN A 15G CONTAINER TO A 24 INCH BOX

The procedure and sequence here is just the same as the last plant shown above.  I'm trying to show photos here to demonstrate what a good and healthy cycad root ball looks like.  Note the roots swirling at the base.  This takes time.  This makes the plant more valuable.  It's not just caudex size. 

We like to think that our cycads here at Jungle Music are some of the best available on the market.  Since we've been growing cycads for almost 40 years, you know we have old specimens that are well rooted.  Please come by and we'll share them with you.  We repot hundreds of cycads like this every year.
Transplanting a Cycad Transplanting a Cycad
Transplanting a Cycad Transplanting a Cycad Transplanting a Cycad
transplanting a large cycad Transplanting a Cycad Transplanting a Cycad
Transplanting a Cycad Transplanting a Cycad Transplanting a Cycad
     
CYCADS DIE FROM THE BOTTOM UP
ROOT ROT LEADS TO CAUDEX ROT
AND FINALLY YOU GET LEAF DEATH


Remember that cycads die from the roots up.  The first three photos show a plant that appeared to be doing great.  Then, one day the leaves all died quickly.  They got brown and easily pulled  away from the trunk.  Further inspection showed caudex rot; it was hollowed out as shown.  And, below that and the cause of it all was root rot.  I don't know what happened to the roots.  But, long before we saw anything wrong with the plants, the roots were probably already dead and shot.
Cycad Problems
What one sees here is an Encephalartos
with leaves that are dying.
Cycad Problems
Further inspection shows the caudex is soft
Cycad Problems
Further inspection shows that this
cycad is dead.  The caudex is rotted.
   
     
A CYCAD LEAFS OUT BEFORE IT ROOTS
YOU CAN'T TELL THE DIFFERENCE
BUT, THIS PLANT IS IN TROUBLE

The two photos here show an Encephalartos that has nice leaves and looks pretty good.   Correct?   To the customer with no experience, he might purchase such a plant.  But, this caudex threw leaves before it established roots.  We'd never sell such a plant unless it snuck by us.  This would be a risky purchase for a customer.  This is because this plant may succumb before it establishes roots.  Roots are important.  You want roots before leaves.  Nice ball huh?  Sure.   That's surely NOT.
Cycad Problems Cycad Problems
     
CYCAD CAUDEX WITH NO ROOTS IN ONE YEAR

We inspected this 7 inch caudex for roots one year after putting it into pumice.  It still has no roots.  But, the caudex is firm and hard.  This plant still will probably do just fine.  I've seen cycad trunks take up to three years to root out and eventually do just fine.  And, it's a blessing that this particular plant hasn't thrown leaves to "help itself out"
Cycad Problems  
     
BIG CYCAD PROBLEMS
THINK IT'S JUST ABOUT THE CAUDEX?
THINK AGAIN

Here's two examples of cycads sold by other nurseries where we helped revive the owner's plants.  A customer would not know the difference.  Both plants were destined to die.  One plant didn't even have one root but had a full head of blue leaves.  Don't ever be a sucker and buy something like this.  We treated these two plants and both eventually and slowly recovered.
Cycad Problems
This is a cycad someone bought from
another nursery.  It had severe root
rot that would have surely killed the
plant.  We dissected it for the customer
and hopefully it'll do fine.
Cycad Problems
This is an Encephalartos that was
actually sold by someone else.  We
had to offer help and repair the rot and
bring it back to life.  Note, from the caudex
 up with its leaves, all looks good.  Not so! 
It is NOT all about the ball.
     

A WELL ROOTED CYCAD
EXAMPLES TO SHOW YOU HOW TO SPOT WELL ROOTED CYCAD

Three of the four pictues to the right show roots coming out the bottom of the pot, pots torn by roots growing and on five gallon pot that literally exploded because of massive roots.  Obviously that last one was allowed to go too far.  The third pictue shows a huge plant for it's pot.  You'd assume the roots are good because it looks so robust.  That proved to be the case.  The fourth photo shows the great root ball when we repotted it.
well rooted cycad
Roots coming out the bottom
well rooted cycad
Roots so big they burst the container
well rooted cycad
A plant that is super robust
well rooted cycad
Well rooted rootball that holds together
cycad roots rupturing pot
A pot that exploded from root pressure

 

SUMMARY
REPOTTING OF CYCADS AND THE IMPORTANCE OF A GOOD ROOT SYSTEM

I've certainly drilled in my feelings about someone who thinks that cycad purchases are "all about the ball" as this is not true.  Cycads are not inexpensive plants.  And, enthusiasts become quite attached to them.  If one of their cycad dies, it hurts.  A newer nursery has to sell what it has.  It might not have the time or manpower to develop good roots on a cycad.  So, they sell it anyway, hoping no one knows the difference and the plant does come through.  Many times this is not the case.  As I mentioned before, a smaller cycad with good roots will outgrow a larger plant with poor (or no) roots.  Be smart and think about the cycad's roots.  REMEMBER, IT'S NOT ALL ABOUT THE BALL!  If one is only concerned about caudex size, there's the caveat to remember - "Buyer Beware!"  We'd hope that you'd visit us and see the quality of our plants.  Inspect our plants.  And, if you are a mail order customer, we'll be honest about the roots and overall condition of the plant.  Also, we can send any photos you want, including peaks of the roots where possible.  If we are selling offsets that need rooting, we'll tell you so. And, such plants are less expensive than fully rooted out plants. And finally, as you can see, a plant with great roots is a cinch to repot.

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Last modified: June 21, 2017

 

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